Jewish World Review Dec. 13, 2002 / 8 Teves, 5763
Debra J. Saunders
Willie Horton's legacy
When a Massachusetts prison mistakenly gave a
weekend pass to convicted murderer Willie Horton, it
released a chain of events that reverberate through
The first result was the brutal 1987 torture/rape of a
Maryland woman in front of her hog-tied fiance.
The second result was political. Then-Sen. Al Gore,
and later an independent campaign supportive of
then-Vice President George Bush, ran TV spots on
Horton during the 1988 presidential election.
Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis lost.
American politics then embraced two dangerous
myths -- one, that the episode was racial, because
the TV spots showed Horton's black face; and two,
that any politician who innocently releases the wrong
convict is toast.
Hence the drop in presidential pardons from 406
under Ronald Reagan, to 77 from Bush pere and 56
in the first term of Bill Clinton -- before the fire sale of
pardons as he neared his White House farewell --
and zero from George W. Bush to date.
Back to the myths. While Democrats complained
that Willie Horton was about race, his story really
was about crime and arrogance. Horton never should
have been furloughed. He had been sentenced to life
in prison, and was not eligible for parole for years --
when the furlough program was designed to facilitate
inmates' re-entry into society.
If Dukakis had voiced outrage at this blunder and
worked to fix it, his supporters wouldn't have had to
try to dismiss the furlough issue as racist. And they
never understood, it wasn't racism that hurt Dukakis,
but his arrogant veto of a bill to ban furloughs for
first-degree murderers, which showed a clear lack of
compassion for victims.
George W. Bush, I'm glad to say, is no Michael
Dukakis. He doesn't dismiss anti-crime activists as
kooks. He doesn't display a cool disdain for people
who believe in punishing thugs.
He's also a Republican, which means he should see
the value in a tool entrusted to the executive in order,
among other things, to curb excessive sentences --
that is, to curb government power when it is abused
Giving Willie Horton a weekend pass -- that's
undergoverning. Federal mandatory minimum drug
sentences that often place nonviolent first offenders
behind bars for decades -- that's overgoverning.
Republicans are supposed to believing in governing
just right. And to use the pardon power just right, you
have to use it.
Yes, it was misused by Clinton, who handed out
pardons to convicted Puerto Rican terrorists to help
his wife win her New York Senate seat, and later to a
spate of convicts who had greased their way to
At this moment, there are thousands of nonviolent
drug offenders serving draconian sentences. They
deserved to go to prison, they just didn't deserve the
length of their sentence.
There's Clarence Aaron, in prison in Atlanta, who
faces a life sentence without parole for hooking up
two drug dealers -- his sentence is the same that FBI
agent-turned-traitor Robert Hanssen is serving.
At age 19, Chrissy Taylor was sentenced to 19 years
for buying legal chemicals for her boyfriend's illegal
drug operation. Nineteen years?
A Nebraska federal judge has asked Bush to
commute the sentence for first- time drug offender
Hamedah A. Hasan because 27 years is simply
Dukakis made the mistake of not caring about people
outraged when the system screwed up. As Margaret
Love, pardon attorney for Bush pere, noted, Clinton's
mistake was that he "simply did not understand or
appreciate the public nature of the pardon power, or
his obligation to stand accountable for its principled
exercise even at the end of his term."
It's time for Bush to appreciate the power, exercise it,
and show his many scoffers how the power to pardon
can be done right.
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© 2000, Creators Syndicate